CHICAGO - The Chicago Blackhawks feel like the pieces have fallen perfectly into place.
Conference finalists a year ago, the young Blackhawks are favoured heading into this year's Stanley Cup final with the Philadelphia Flyers. They have depth and skill throughout the lineup and believe they are ready to take the next step.
"I think we learned a lot by what happened last year in the playoffs," coach Joel Quenneville said Thursday. "We've added some leadership as well in the off-season with (Marian) Hossa and John Madden and the experience that the guys had last year put us in a position where we should be all excited about what's ahead of us. ...
"The pieces have been in place, and I think the guys are welcoming the challenge."
With that in mind, here's a closer look at the Blackhawks:
Antti Niemi is shouldering the load in goal after taking over the team's No. 1 job following the Olympics. It's been a charmed season for the soft-spoken Finn, who wasn't even a lock to crack the roster out of training camp. He's among the playoff leaders with a .921 save percentage and 2.33 goals-against average.
Canadian Olympians Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook anchor a strong blue-line. The Blackhawks have been relying heavily on that pair and the second unit of Brian Campbell and Niklas Hjalmarsson, an underrated part of the team. Keith is the real workhorse with an average of 27 minutes 52 seconds per game. Brent Sopel and Jordan Hendry round out the top six.
Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Dustin Byfuglien have arguably been the top line in the entire playoffs. It's a curious combination with the two franchise players and Byfuglien, a 265-pounder who was drafted in the eighth round and had an "inconsistent" regular season according to coach Joel Quenneville.
The team's second unit features Patrick Sharp between Troy Brouwer and Hossa, who is growing weary of being asked about only scoring twice during these playoffs. After answering questions about it on a daily basis, he'll be looking for more production against the Flyers.
David Bolland is one of the Hawks unsung heroes. He centres a successful shutdown unit with Andrew Ladd and Kris Versteeg and has chipped in some key goals along the way.
And don't forget fourth-liner John Madden, a two-time Cup winner with the New Jersey Devils and an important voice in the Chicago locker-room.
Joel Quenneville has been credited with bringing structure and discipline to the Blackhawks since taking over from Denis Savard a couple games into last season. He won a Stanley Cup as an assistant coach with Colorado in 1996 but is as excited about this opportunity as any of his players—"it has been a long time since ('96)," he said.
A four-game sweep of the San Jose Sharks in the Western Conference final was made possible by a solid penalty kill. Seabrook, Bolland, Toews and Madden have helped the Blackhawks establish the top-ranked PK in the conference during these playoffs. The team has been similarly effective on the power play, an area that was something of a concern during the regular season.